Often referred to as the rain forests of the ocean, coral reefs are some of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. Coral reefs are not only visually stunning to admire with a mask and a snorkel, they’re also home to juvenile pelagic fish, reef fish, and other sea critters who seek shelter from toothy predators.
Because coral reefs are sensitive structures, they are easily threatened when it comes to water pollution and physical damage. In this guide, we’ll share tips for enjoying coral reefs in a way that keeps them healthy for years to come.
Corals: plants, animals or outer-worldly creatures?
What are coral reefs anyways? Coral reefs are made up of colonies of coral polyps that are bound together by calcium carbonate. When coral polyps die, new polyps form on the skeleton, causing the coral structure to grow. The corals that form reefs are typically called hard corals, while soft corals and can take the form of lace-like fans, long whips, and sacks of bubbles. There are hundreds of species of coral, with many of them looking forming structures that resemble an alien creature than anything else on earth.
Coral polyps are part of the phylum cnidaria family–a group that also includes jellyfish and anemones. Strange as it seems, coral polyps are animals.
Check the back of your sun cream bottle
Before you pack that bottle of sun cream in your luggage, check the label. In a study by the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, researchers found that some ingredients commonly found in sun creams are damaging to coral polyps. These include oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate.
This has led destinations like Hawaii and Key West in the United States and Palau to ban sun creams with reef-damaging ingredients. A reef-safe sun cream will not have oxybenzone or octinoxate. Instead, its UVA and UVB ray protecting properties will be made from minerals like non-nano zinc and non-nano titanium oxide. Zinc and titanium oxide made from nano particles are still damaging to reefs. A sun cream like Stream2Sea ticks all the boxes when it comes to sun protection without any reef-harming additions.
For maximum sun protection and minimal reef impact, consider packing along a long-sleeved rashguard and leggings with a sun protection rating of 50+. Say goodbye to having to reapply! Plus, it’ll save money on long trips where reef-safe sun cream is hard to find or expensive to purchase.
Mind your limbs
When snorkelling, swimming, and scuba diving around coral reefs, mind where you step and where you touch. Coral reefs are often thousands of years old and one small bump can set back a structure decades. If you’re not a strong swimmer, wear a life vest when you snorkel to enjoy the coral reef from the surface. Mind your fins when kicking to avoid stirring up sediment or breaking off a coral crag.
Enter and exit the water in designated areas–typically marked by a gentle, sandy slope into the water. Mid to high tide tends to be best for snorkeling around shallow reefs, when you’ll have enough space to move and explore. Avoid areas that have strong currents or waves that could knock you into the reef.
Coral reefs are often home to venomous creatures that can bite and sting like urchins, stone fish, scorpionfish, stinging corals, sharp edges, and more. It’s best for all involved to keep your limbs to yourself.
Stay at hotels with coral-conscious initiatives
As many travellers venture to places famous for their thriving reefs, hotels have smartened up to the fact that it’s not only in the environment’s best interest to have healthy reefs, it’s also in the hotel’s as well. Many forward-thinking hotel and tour operators have incorporated eco-friendly initiatives like coral gardening and conservation programs into their regular activity schedules. Fiji is a prime destination for coral-friendly tourism, where six hotels currently work with their guests to help local reefs thrive.
Avoid hotels that dispose of their grey-water directly on the reef or dump rubbish into nearby streams, which then drains to the sea.
Opt for green tourism operators
When it comes to choosing a tour operator that puts the environment above profit, it can be a challenge to separate the deserving from the duds. Thankfully, some dive and snorkel guides have opted to become Green Fins members and area easily found via the Green Fins website. These operators must follow a strict set of guidelines to stay active.
How do you know if a dive or snorkelling guide is truly green? These are a few key factors:
- The boat drifts along or ties to a mooring. The boat driver does not drop an anchor directly onto the reef.
- The operator has a water refill station rather than solely single use plastic bottles.
- They often host beach or underwater cleanups.
- They encourage guests to look but not touch marine wildlife. Dive guides do not pick up, poke or harass wildlife just so guests can get a closer look.
- They participate in coral reef monitoring studies.
- Groups are kept to small sizes.
- Sun cream provided is reef-safe.
Reward and recommend operators who are reef-friendly
Help other travellers make the right choice by rewarding dive and snorkel operators and hotels that have reef-safe practices. Give them those coveted five stars and explicitly state in your review that it was the company’s commitment to coral conservation that inspired you to leave top marks. This may also spur competitors to steer in an environmentally conscious direction. Likewise, if you see a hotel or tour operator promote reef-damaging behaviours, send them an email or note these behaviours in a review.